Oral History of Museum Computing: Peter Samis, Susie Wise, and Tim Svenonius

This Oral History of Museum Computing is provided by Peter Samis, Susie Wise, and Tim Svenonius, and was recorded on the 7th of May, 2021, by Paul Marty and Kathy Jones. It is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license (CC-BY), which allows for unrestricted reuse provided that appropriate credit is given to the original source. For the recording of this oral history, please see https://youtu.be/XDdQUZFXpUY.

Susie Wise: I can start in the middle if you want.

Peter Samis: Yeah, sure. Go for it.

Susie Wise: Just to say I was gonna… a few things that flashed to my mind, which is, and I think you asked how did you land in this field? And I’ll say that I met Peter Samis in my backyard. He was brought there by Christina Olsen, whom you should probably be interviewing too, who led media at The Getty back in the day, and is now [Director] at the University of Michigan [Art Museum]… And I had been working in what at the time we just called [finger quotes] multimedia, doing game design, and actually, was led to that because there’s some work I did at the Exploratorium, which was really about AIDS, and wasn’t at all about technology, but I discovered museum technology through that process. Anyway, and that led me into again “multimedia” or [finger quotes] “edutainment,” and so I had been designing games for, you know, like multiplication games and language games, based on books like Danny and the Dinosaur or Frog and Toad are Friends, and somewhere in that moment was when I met Peter.

I was ready to transition out of that work and – or maybe I was working on Animaniacs then — I don’t know. Anyway, but just to say, I was super excited to get to the museum and discover the kind of content that we could create there, and the mission originally, and it is kind of what led to Points of Departure as an exhibition, was the kind of flagship program, Making Sense of Modern Art, which Peter had already been conceptualizing in lots of different ways, but that was the platform that then, we built. And we – maybe Peter’s insight, I’m not totally sure — but a big part of the behind the scenes-ness for us was that inasmuch as we were creating public-facing content to really engage visitors in Making Sense of Modern Art, we were very clear that we wanted to build tools that would allow it to become economically feasible, viable for the museum to keep doing that work, so that’s what landed us really in this space of creating, you know, [a] background [set of authoring] tools [that would eventually become known as Pachyderm], as part of it. And we were, we had a very interesting push-pull with the museum. Like, who were we pushing, who were we pulling along with us? Because we were kind of ahead of the curve, in the context of the institution, in terms of the digitizing. It wasn’t that people hadn’t, weren’t already on the path, but we were really pushing what the uses would be, the use cases and what it would mean, and so it was really powerful field-building work, we could tell at the time, because we were constantly in these intermediate spaces where nobody, you know, where we were making it up and, in the best way. And, getting in trouble and, you know, all kinds of things. And I don’t know how we had the chutzpah to just like keep going [Laughing] really, but that was part of it, for me.

Anyway, so I really remember that… and Points of Departure, I feel like then got to be a kind of culminating moment of like, we’ve been doing all this technology stuff, but we’re actually able to say, the stories that we have captured and the media that we’ve created, and the tools that we have at our disposal to do this, we actually can, can help in a curatorial kind of way, right? And that we can, that we were far enough along that we could really kind of own that space in that way. And that let us go even further to say, then, we should have the most experimental technologies we could come up with in that time, so that to me was kind of like a pinnacle of the work, in a way. It was also then, like… we were always doing these things like intersecting all the things we were interested in. And so, it was also one of the exhibitions where we really went after doing visitor research in a different way for the institution, and that, that was then, of course, influential for me, because I was like, “Oh, actually maybe research is interesting. Maybe I should, you know, pursue research as well.” Anyway, those are some of my…

Peter Samis: That’s great, just great. Tim, you want to say something?

Tim Svenonius: Sure, well, so I had been in, in the late ‘90s, I had been working as a graphic designer and sort of as, like many, many graphic designers at the time, sort of exploring the area of multimedia design, and, at the time, you know, [Macromedia] Director had been big, like all the big, all the popular commercial CD-ROMs were built in Director, but Flash was kind of emerging, and that was really super-interesting because things were lightweight. And, you know, I was just starting to read about Flash Generator, where a Flash movie could be data-fed and that, and that just was like, it was very fascinating to me. But I had no idea how to get, you know, how do I learn, how do I learn more about that, and how do I make use of it? And then I, so I was, I was taking courses through the, through SF State [University] at what their brand new Multimedia Studies program.

Susie Wise: I took classes there too! [raises hand]

Tim Svenonius: Hey! And there…. And I went…

Susie Wise: Brand new, and short lived. Like, they, it was like opened and closed.

Peter Samis: About five years.

Tim Svenonius: Yeah, yeah, it was. But basically the idea was they set up a downtown center and all of the classes were evenings and weekends, so that people who had day jobs and who were doing exactly the kind of thing that I was doing where like, you’re kind of doing what you want, but you know that there’s, like, there’s more and so expanding one’s horizons after, after hours and they, there was an intern fair, where I met Chris Larrance, who was part of Peter’s team at the time, and it was a really interesting… It just, you know, it was this kind of thing where like it clicked very quickly. For one thing, I thought, “Internship at SFMOMA? What?” You know, and then, and then, Chris was meanwhile like, you know, like, “Wait a second. Tell me again…” Like I mean, he was super interested in what I was, you know, like, whatever random thing I said to him, he was like, you know, “We should talk!” And so that, so I started that internship and it was a peculiar like, it was a… there was something of a perfect storm because I thought, like…. because I had a background in art history, and was a fan of SFMOMA, but then, meanwhile, it was such a small team that I was getting to, you know, I was allowed to do a lot of things like, I was working on the database and doing a little bit of front-end design and, and I wasn’t doing content or research or writing at the time, but I, but I knew enough that I was allowed to have opinions that mattered, and so, it was a, it was like a kind of peculiarly good fit to where I was at that moment, and I had also, I guess, I had had these freelance gigs that were doing design that were just not super stimulating. Like, they were… you know it, I clearly, I was looking for a new, a new track.

So that was how I landed, that was how I landed there. And I think that it was, it was especially that moment of like, we’re between, say in the — I don’t remember, was, was Points of Departure 2001? Is that…?

Susie Wise: Yeah.

Tim Svenonius: Yeah, yeah so it was in that like, first year and a half or something that a lot, a lot of things were happening, you know, it was that the, the creation of the new version of Making Sense of Modern Art, you know, template-based Flash content platform for which we created what would later be called Pachyderm, the authoring back-end, and basically, all these different efforts of content development and custom software development that culminated, that kind of converged into Points of Departure.

Susie Wise: One of the things that that just like, hearing both of our stories and also just like calling up that Multimedia Studies program in San Francisco downtown, it just so conjures that era. Like, we’re just… it was the first dot-com, which of course now, like 20 years later, is like, it feels like ancient history, but it was multimedia, we were just entering dot-com, and it was fascinating because we started to know people who were like working on PetStore.com and making the first crazy money and those kinds of things. And I can remember, and I don’t know about you guys, like, having moments of like, “Why are we in a nonprofit when everybody is making money?”

[All laughing.]

Susie Wise: And, but it hugely mattered because we could actually attract incredible folks to work on our projects –– technologists, designers and other folks — because working on PetStore.com was super stupid. Right? Like maybe I’m not raking in money, but they were kind of excited that we were actually doing things like shooting videos, right, of the actual artists, like the real people about which you were grappling with like deeper cultural ideas. And some of that I felt like started to matter as that first dot-com just got [waves arms] ridiculous and then, when it crashed, we’re like, “Whew! We still have jobs!” That didn’t last long, right?

[All laugh.]

Peter Samis: Yeah. Yeah, that was, I’m gonna go there in a minute.

Susie Wise: But there was a really interesting, just like that cultural moment, and not just a big “C” cultural, but, just like that time moment, there were a lot of intersecting factors that made it, you know, heady, but also confusing. And anyway, so I thought… I feel like I constantly go back to that moment as we’ve had like, different rises and falls of different technologies, etc.

Peter Samis: Yeah, I was gonna say is… I mean I came into this a few years earlier obviously. Actually, in ’85-‘86 I had… to go back to ’84, when I was doing my graduate work in art history, that was when the Macintosh was introduced. And so I was able to get my 128K Macintosh [moves camera to the computer sitting on a shelf by the stairway near stacks of books]. There it is right there, you can see… can you see you there?


Peter Samis: Yeah, at the student discount price of $2,200 at UC Berkeley. [Laughs.] That was a lot of money back then, too! Anyway, I got it instead of a Kaypro, I was happy about that — and then, by ’85, ’86, when I was doing an internship, I was Graphic Arts Council Fellow at the Palace and Legion of Honor at the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, they put a plug in the wall and I would bring my luggable, bring my Macintosh to work with me and I started doing the research for the exhibition I was curating on 19th-Century French prints and printmakers, in the first version of FileMaker, creating a database, and then we created what ended up being the first desktop-published… you see, the laser printers, LaserWriter had just come out, and we created — I would take floppy discs to Krishna Copy, here in Berkeley, [at the intersection] of University Avenue and Shattuck, and go upstairs to their little a den of Mac SEs and LaserWriters—no one could afford [a LaserWriter] personally — and we printed out the wall labels, on special [colored, textured museum label] paper, and then we, and then Holly — I forget her last name — who was in the Fine Art Museum of San Francisco’s graphic design department, wanted to learn about desktop publishing, all this new software that was just being introduced, like PageMaker, and so she, you know, she said, “I’ll mock it up and we’ll make a catalog on the cheap. There’s very little budget for it.” So it was the first museum-published, desktop-published museum labels and catalog at that time. And then Apple got wind of it and wanted to give me a citation as one of the “100 Most Innovative Uses” of their computers in their first 10 years because you know, the museum exhibition looked good and, you know, so that was like, a few years before I got to SFMOMA. Then at SFMOMA in ‘88 I arrived, and there were like two Macintoshes on the floor [for] all the offices on the floor. There were two: one on our side [in] curatorial, and one in registration, and we would sneaker-net floppy discs back and forth, to use FileMaker as databases for exhibition checklists. But the computers were still too primitive to really do anything multimedia, you know, anything like play… they couldn’t even play the, you know, tiny thumbnail [color] QuickTime videos, some of those early computers anyway.

So it took a while for computing to catch up… to breach this new terrain, where you know, where multimedia was possible. You know, what Susie called multimedia. It’s what we called it at the time, right. And when it did, I was totally excited by the potential. I was never into technology for its own sake, but as a communication-creative-synthetic production tool… I was into writing, I was into film, I was into photography — to bring them all together and be able to tap into archives and bring that material together like we did in Voices and Images of California Art or as we could do, in Making Sense of Modern Art as well, and multiple voices in multiple approaches to understanding something instead of boiling it all down to one paragraph of jargon in a label, I thought, like “Wow! We can unpack this stuff.” You know, so that was really interesting to me, and I saw the potential, and I got, yeah, I read that fabulous book. I don’t know if you guys know it, On Multimedia: Technologies for the 21st Century. It was proceedings of a symposium that had been held down I think at UCLA, and it had all kinds of people ranging from the people who had worked on the Guernica Project, I think it was Robert Abel? — I’m running, I’m drawing a blank on his name — to people from MIT, to people from Apple’s Multimedia Lab, all kinds of people who were doing early, early developmental prototyping and could see the horizons and vistas of the potentials of these new forms of publishing, these new forms of crafting narratives, of these polysemic, you know, multipath narratives, and Voyager had just come out with the first CD-ROMs like Beethoven, and you know, as I ran, you know I almost missed MacWorld, which, even though it was a block away at Brooks Hall, [which was right in the] Civic Center, and SFMOMA was [also in the] Civic Center, you know, I was working as a curatorial assistant across four departments, and you know, there was a lot of work to do, and I made it in before five o’clock on the last day. Somehow got to the Voyager booth, got the book on multimedia, got the Beethoven CD-ROM, and like, my mind was blown. And I kind of saw the potential of how this could, you know, we could communicate in completely new ways that had never been invented before, using these tools, and, and create… I had been a docent already at SFMOMA for years, so I understood how clueless some people are when they arrive in the galleries, and they look at a pile of rocks on the floor or they look at a monochrome canvas on the wall. And here I was now, with my Masters in Art History, working as a curatorial assistant and felt like, Okay well, now we have a tool to restore some of the context the white cube of the gallery strips away.

Now, it took four years of advocating and personnel changes, and it took John Weber arriving as a new curator of education, having been a curator of contemporary art, up in Portland at the Portland art museum, and…

Susie Wise: What year did John Weber arrive?

Peter Samis: I think in ’90 — either late ‘93 or early ‘94. Yeah, I had convinced an earlier Curator of Education and earlier Deputy Director of Curatorial Affairs. Then they both got fired. Jack Lane, the Director, was very Navy — top down — you know, he wasn’t gonna hire, he wasn’t going to promote [anyone or] anything from below, from an idea, from the Curatorial Assistant-idea level without having all the other tiers in place. I waited around for a year, I had similar thoughts to Susie, like, “Oh, my God. Multimedia is beginning to take off. Am I going to stay here at this museum or, I am I gonna take off and join the dot-com world?” which was beginning in ’94, let’s say. And you know, there were all the projects that are getting underway… Anyway, I almost quit. I was just so frustrated, exasperated. But John had arrived, and a friend in Berkeley talked me down from the cliff, as did my father by phone from New York. And the next day I arrived at SFMOMA again, you know, after being, I’d already worked there for six years, and John said, “Peter, we have a job offer for you,” you know. “This new position. Here’s what we’re going to try and do. You know, we’re gonna, you’re gonna have two titles. One will be Assistant Curator of Education, goes back to the museum world title, and then we have to have a title that faces Silicon Valley and Multimedia Gulch in San Francisco, so how about ‘Program Manager Interactive Educational Technologies?’”

And so, I had this, the longest… I, it could have been a Japanese folding screen of a business card with all those words on it, but anyway, it was. That, and suddenly I flew the coop from my old curatorial assistant job, right, helped to organize, in all four departments, all kinds of different exhibitions—about 50 exhibitions in about five years—and was suddenly, you know, charged with leading this new effort, and to bring multimedia to SFMOMA, and the reason why it was relevant and urgent was we’re about to move into a new building. Right? The Mario Botta Building on Third Street gave us new spaces and new opportunities, and a new public, and a new profile. Suddenly we’re on the cover of the phone book instead of like the museum where no one knew where we were, because it was on the top floor, you know, the top two floors of the War Memorial Building and didn’t look modern at all. It was in the last Beaux Arts building of civic architecture in California. It was built in the ‘30s but it looked like it was from the 19th Century.

Anyway, now, you know, Mario Botta’s building looked like it was very current. And it was on the front cover of the phone book, and it did make waves, and so, there was a lot of energy around it in the community, and we were able to recruit a lot of interns and I was able to, with a slim budget, put together initial prototypes of three different programs. And this was something Larry Friedlander recommended. Larry Friedlander from Stanford and who had also worked with the Apple Multimedia Lab said, “Instead of putting all your eggs in one basket, why don’t you try a few different things that are interesting to you and see, you know, which one, and test them out and evaluate them, and see which is most sustainable and most promising.” So we created three different initial programs: an early version of Making Sense of Modern Art; the initial version of Voices and Images of California Art… which was focused more narrowly on an archival view into the lives of specific California artists who are prominently represented in our collection; and then, the Bay Area Art Finder, which was about all the other art spaces in the Bay Area that weren’t on the front cover of the phone book. You know, that were grassroots spaces, artist-run spaces, collective spaces, and it was kind of a guide to all those places, along with the artwork you’d find there, their exhibiting philosophy, and where they were in a map-based interface.

So that was when we got started. But we were really in this tiny little space on the second floor of the museum, of the brand-new Botta galleries. It was revolutionary because we had a footprint at all. We had three computers set up in this little space, between the permanent Painting and Sculpture galleries, and the Architecture and Design galleries. There was this, you know, what was variously called, you know, initially, a name that Tim didn’t like at all, the Education Pit Stop. He made it sound, because he felt it sounded like a toilet, I think. And then….

Susie Wise: So maybe just…

Tim Svenonius: A pit stop is where you go when you’re… when something’s broken.

Peter Samis: Yeah, right. That’s interesting.

[Jones]: Get the tires put back on in three seconds.

Susie Wise: What? So, so Peter, I’m… maybe I mean, since we want to get to Points of Departure…

Peter Samis: I want to get to… well, yeah.

Susie Wise: I wonder, I mean I almost wonder like, given the set-up that you’ve shared, like can we can we jump to Points of Departure? And share what….

Peter Samis: Yes, absolutely. We can leap.

Susie Wise: Like, what, what was accomplished there that had been envisioned and what was different.

Peter Samis: Yeah, absolutely. So the leap, so I was trying to set the stage for how peripheral all this was to museum culture. And, and it was just by virtue of emergency doors in this one tiny gallery between Painting and Sculpture and Architecture and Design that made it a space that neither department wanted, that we ended up having a footprint on the floor. So on the one hand, there’s that level of, kind of, in a sense, not buying in, not being on-budget, you know, just an experiment, having raised the money from the outside, put it in that space that no one else wants, see if anybody likes it — and then fast forward, you know, to 1998, 1999, as the dot-com era, full- fledged, David Ross arrives from his position as Director of the Whitney Museum, saying that— telling Glenn Lowry at MoMA, you know, “Okay, I cede you the 20th Century, but the 21st Century is up for grabs.” And David Ross, being the museum director who had first recognized video and the potential of video, now sees the potential of multimedia. And all the Trustees’ pockets are flush. The budgets are running high. David only knows one speed: forward, as fast as possible. He has the same vision of the dot-com as the people on the outside. He actually thinks that our multimedia authoring software is going to become an enormous source of revenue for the museum, and wants to turn Pachyderm into a dot-com enterprise in and of itself. And, you know, so, so he’s supporting us, Lori Fogarty, the Deputy Director is supporting us in saying, “Why don’t we build a, you know… They’re doing a top floor show about 010101, Art in Technological Times. Why don’t we do on the fourth floor—” no, no, that was the fourth floor show.

Susie Wise: Yeah, we were the top floor.

Peter Samis: Yeah, we took that… “Why don’t we do on the top floor something basic. That spin is kind of a natural outgrowth of the Making Sense of Modern Art program, and, where we actually use that as a platform and a basis for externalizing the artworks in the collection, thematizing them, and making them a visitor experience and integrating technology in the gallery?” That was completely radical, [waves arms] revolutionary, you know, unprecedented idea for SFMOMA and for most other art museums, any other art museum I can think of itself except the MIA, Minneapolis Institute of Art where Evan Maurer had hired with Scott Sayre to put kiosks next to every gallery, all through the way, all along the way in the 90s. Yeah. Okay, that’s all I need to say for now. That got us up to Points of Departure. Sorry guys, I was long-winded. I’m sorry.

Susie Wise: No, no no. It’s great. It’s totally fine. I, I just going on the hidden labor [theme] — I think labor is in your frame, right? Labor, I remember and I don’t actually know if it was specifically Points of Departure or one of our… it could have just been Making Sense of Modern Art, but in that era and time, I remember having a party to celebrate the exhibition launch. Maybe it was Points of Departure. Anyway, in conjunction with the software development that we’d been doing, and deciding to print as part of the remarks to kick off the party, printed out a list of everybody who’d worked on all the different things, and it was this like, scroll and it wasn’t like I used a giant font either. It was like, so many names and I had it as a scroll, and at the party I just like kind of like threw it, so that this paper – it was probably like from some dot matrix printer — rolled out with the names, because when you actually – like, the work that it took, right? It was no longer like a couple interns, right? and Peter. It was like a whole software development team, an entire armature of people on different things from flat–[bed scanning to rights management], you know… Anyway, it was just an army of people, totally invisible to almost everybody at the museum, and so I, I felt like… I don’t know, I look back on it now and it’s kind of an act of leadership to just be [spreads her arms wide] like: “This is how many people actually takes to do this work!” [Laughing.] Right? And so, I remember that. I don’t have the scroll anymore, but it was a lot of people on that list. A lot of people.

Peter Samis: That’s right. A lot of moving parts brought together. […]

Peter Samis: So I mean, there are a few things. So, talking about Making Sense of Modern Art, well, you know, the idea that that that program became kind of the rationale for extruding it in the galleries, as you know, kind of a real art exhibition that was going to be, it was going to honor visitor questions about difficult artworks for them, you know — we knew that certain contemporary artworks we do with that, that was the whole idea behind Points of Departure. We were going to take the artworks that visitors often were most puzzled by, and turn, and make it a teachable moment in the galleries. So there were like artworks that were just words, you know, words on the wall, whether it was Lawrence Weiner or it was Glenn Ligon’s slave narrative prints or whether it was Martha Rosler’s word and picture “The Bowery in Three Inadequate Descriptive Systems,” you know, or Jenny Holzer, words streaming down an LED display. That was one gallery. You know, “Why is this in an art museum? Why, why is this visual art?” Honoring questions like that. Another was about recycled artworks, assemblage artworks. Whether it was Rauschenberg’s Trophy for Marcel Duchamp [misspeaks], which you know was different, you know, there’s boot that can that.

Susie Wise: John Cage!

Peter Samis: Right, right. Trophy, Trophy IV (For John Cage), excuse me, that actually has a boot that Rauschenberg had the temerity because he was the artist, to actually touch and, and bang into a piece of sheet metal when he talked about in the gallery. Go ahead.

Susie Wise: Well, I’ll just say that, like the anecdote on that, and Tim, I don’t know if you were on the team then, but that interview took place in 1999. I had just joined the team.

And so it was kind of the first video with an artist, that I was like [finger quotes] helping to produce, right, which I didn’t really know what all that meant, and that was okay, because Peter had [videographer] Stuart Rickey on board already, and they kind of knew what they wanted to do, but I was like, then trying to figure out the whole thing of how things are controlled in a museum, and so it was this thing of like, there were the special protocols. Like, they’re getting the Jack Daniels into the gallery, and that had to breathe.

Peter Samis: For Rauchenberg [laughs]

Susie Wise: Because, God forbid, you go an hour without your Jack Daniels? Whoa! Okay! But and then, like the look on everyone’s face when Rauschenberg actually kicks [slams] the boot[s], [laughing] right, which, of course, he should be allowed to do. He made the thing, and you surely know that John Cage wanted him to kick it, you know, may they all rest in peace, but anyway, that was, that still… so that video is so amazing to me because you kind of see it all. And you see David Ross in his very dapper suit and all the things, like all the elements to me are there, kind of have this like hidden-ness of the work of the museum, right. Everything it took to get the permission to be in the gallery at that time and Phyllis Wattis — that’s her name, right? – who had donated the work. Not Ruth Wat-, right? I always confused.

Peter Samis: Phyllis. Phyllis.

Susie Wise: Who’s Ruth Wattis?

Peter Samis: I don’t know.

Susie Wise: Anyway, I don’t know, nobody. I made that up. Phyllis Wattis, you know, had acquired these pieces, for the museum. It was a big deal in the art world, and it was also like a little deal of like, you gotta get the Jack Daniels for the thing, and then… anyway, that that moment represents, and that video is still in the museum!

Right? We’ve moved beyond the Botta Building. It’s the next building, it’s great, but the video is still there. ‘Cause the artist is dead!

Peter Samis: Right, that’s right. That is absolutely right.

Susie Wise: And that was him, interacting with work that he had created, so it’s, it’s fascinating too just like how important that invisible labor of capturing those moments is.

Peter Samis: Right and how he was doing something that the visitors would never be allowed to do, and museum staff would never be allowed to do, and, but that was exactly what the sculpture was made to do, which was to bang against that piece of sheet metal to make that noise.

Susie Wise: Right. So it contains all those tensions, as well as all the invisible labor…

Peter Samis: Right, and so every visitor can now replay that, and they can hear the noise made, and they can look, at least that in Points of Departure, they could look at the piece, and they could see Rauschenberg making the noise with it. And suddenly, that would connect it instead of it just being this, you know, otherwise perhaps at least mute if not lifeless piece of, you know, assemblage of different elements, components and debris on the ground.

And that was the idea, really, was to deliver just-in-time information to visitors in the most accessible way via these smart tables in the galleries. And I think one of the things I want to talk about is what we, kind of, is how we gathered the curatorial voices down in storage— Once we had the checklist for the exhibition, we went down, and you know, the process of getting the curators on board, and getting them down into storage to talk about each of these… We identified six themes. One was Found / Recycled / Repurposed, that would have the Rauschenberg, for instance, and other found objects — and Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, the urinal piece/sculpture. Another was Language. Another was Pushing Paint, which was about, you know, painters who just love that kind of the mud of the paint, and that were on the cusp of abstraction and figuration. Another was Line. What was it lines?

Susie Wise: Grid was one, but.

Peter Samis: Yeah, grid. Grids was, grid was one — that would be Warhol and Chuck Close and Carolee Schneemann and Eva Hesse, and you know, the fascination contemporary artists have with grids. Another was Style with Gerhard Richter. And the final one was about line. I want to say shape, volume, field, or something, [Line, Shape, Volume, Field] but it was Brice Marden and Louise Bourgeois and Cy Twombly and these artists who were exploring the potential of different forms of line — and so the idea was that we would take an hour to go down into storage once we had the checklist for each of these sets, and we would schedule an hour for each theme, bring the curators down to talk, to riff on the pieces we had selected for the exhibition that corresponded to that theme.

Susie Wise: Can I just jump in just to say?

Peter Samis: Go ahead. Go for it. Yeah, yeah.

Susie Wise: I think it was, I think part of what was happening in that exhibition was the bringing of that curatorial voice. And it was, and it was really also the visitor voice, because still, right, those questions of those themes and the whole question of the literal interface of Making Sense of Modern Art were actual visitor questions. So that, right, there’s the, there are just multiple layers of I think that kind of the curiosity, right, that presumably drives curatorial thinking, but also really drives great visitor experience and how, in those interfaces we were attempting to, particularly the technology-based interfaces right, we were attempting to surface that and honor it and make that visible.

Peter Samis: Absolutely.

Susie Wise: So that the work of asking questions was shared.

Peter Samis: Yes, and this went back to my work years before as a docent.

You know, and getting in the galleries and asking questions, or listening to visitor questions. That became kind of the premise for the opening template for the artwork screen for Making Sense of Modern Art. Like, the questions that surround the work. You can either zoom into the artwork in Pachyderm… and get directly there, or you can choose any of the questions that we thought that honored visitor questions that would be prompted by the encounter, the naive encounter perhaps with that work, or even a more expert encounter with that work.

Susie Wise: Well, we did turn that into our… I mean, based on that we turned that into our practice for any new thing that we were going to launch would be to spend time with visitors to inquire of those questions, not just to hypothesize about them. That was a, that was a thing, right, that was kind of on our production plan for the starting of any new module was to get into the galleries and hear those questions.

Peter Samis: Yeah. That long map. That long process map that we put together, yeah. So, I just want to wrap up about what we did down in storage, which was that, you know, the artworks were on the racks, right. We would pull a rack out, and we… Stuart would set up, Stuart Rickey, our videographer, would set up his camera on a tripod and we would basically say, in effect we were asking, “What’s so special about this particular artwork? Why does it apply to this theme? And how does it specifically and uniquely inflect this theme?” You know, and then we’d go to the next one. And we tried to be informal, and we encouraged the curators to respond informally and casually as real people, and not as [puffs up chest] ‘experts.’ And because they were in the basement, this was even more appropriate, you know… And so we got an hour of commentary on each theme, but we knew we only wanted about two minutes as an intro for each [smart] table.

So the next work was all that stuff got transcribed by our ace transcriptionist, Denise Rohlfs, and came back to us… and there was this process of winnowing down to soundbites like, whatever seemed like it was like an insightful, pithy remark, that would actually open someone’s eyes [spreads his fingers wide] to a dimension of this artwork, that got in and the paragraph that led up to it or the paragraph that followed were taken out. And then another curator’s perspective would be, we’d get, we’d get a soundbite coming in, and then, they ended up all surfacing on screen in this beautiful design that Tony, Anthony Amidei, at Perimetre-Flux Design made in Director, actually I think, Tim, for the Smart Tables. They ended up surfacing one curator’s voice and face would come and say one thing about this work, another would say another thing, [alternating right and left hands to mimic the animation flow of the faces as they appeared onscreen] another would say another, and the works would be onscreen, too, so you knew which one they were talking about. And that was kind of the premise of the initial two-minute intro layer in the Smart Tables, which were one component out of four that we were deploying in this kind of technological extravaganza that we tried to make as seamless and imperceptible in a sense, unobtrusive, I should say, as possible in the galleries.

Do either of you have any other thoughts about that process of getting the Smart Tables together? Because we can also talk about the design and design considerations of that table. Tim, go ahead.

Tim Svenonius: Well, yeah. One of, one of the considerations was that it was like, the idea of having computers in the galleries was definitely still….

Peter Samis: Anathema.

Tim Svenonius: Yeah, yeah taboo for, anathema for sure. And so the tables had a low enough profile. They were designed for standing height, so they were sort of comfortable to interact with for a, from a standing position. And you know…

Peter Samis: Low ADA.

Tim Svenonius: Yeah, that didn’t obstruct of the line of sight of anything, and they were kind of tucked in, you know, I think everything was nestled in a corner or against a wall. Like, they were they were very out of the way and they were like…

Peter Samis: Blonde wood.

Tim Svenonius: Kind of well-designed enough not to, not to look like— not to look too technological, I suppose.

Peter Samis: Exactly right.

Tim Svenonius: And then, the components of Making Sense of Modern Art, that we launched at the same time, had to live sort of outside the galleries in a kind of liminal space and because those, you know, they were still big CRT monitors and they are really unsightly and obtrusive and so, in fact, there were two different kind of kiosk components: there was Making Sense of Modern Art and then there was the Make Your Own Gallery activity that that Perimetre-Flux also developed. And those lived in… this, this would be, like this was true prior to Points of Departure, and it was true long after that, like those, that any gallery kiosk couldn’t really coexist with artwork. They were always in a corridor or in a lobby…

Peter Samis: Peripheral, yeah…

Tim Svenonius: Yeah, some kind of some kind of unused… like a fire exit or whatever and…

Susie Wise: Well! The Koret Visitor Education Center was different.

Peter Samis: With Koret it became a beautiful learning lounge, but it was still outside the art display space, yeah.

Tim Svenonius: Right. No I did say gallery. Gallery kiosks. But, so and then… what else was there? I think that maybe that’s all…

Peter Samis: And then there’s the Compaq Gallery Explorer. So there were four components, we were also at the same time… See, initially we had been talking with the Flavia Sparacino from MIT’s Media Lab. And that was where a lot of this got spawned, and David Ross, you know, loved the idea that we were going to work with the Media Lab, but Flavia’s technologies kind of were really still at the age, the level of prototypes and they weren’t robust enough to be deployed with visitors. I mean, she was, before Google Glass, she was using wearables, and she was using glasses with a little mounted camera, and you would wear the computer, which was a hacked Sony Vaio in the vest that you wore, and the video glasses were gonna, were going to do image recognition on the fly of wherever the visitor was in the gallery, and then feed a cinematic narrative that would be assembled on the fly to the visitor. That was her goal, but that was still years ahead, in fact, and so we had to figure out what can we do with kind of off-the-shelf available hardware that, that will be robust enough for everyday use today. But yeah, I think by Flavia having brought that stuff out, brought all her kit, her gear out, and people having tried it out and worn it, you know, the solutions we finally ended up with felt so conservative by comparison with… like wearing goggles, you know, and wearing a vest with a computer on your back, you know, through the galleries, where it was all about the technology. It felt like this was, you know, “Boy, Peter and his team, they’re being very discreet,” you know?

Tim Svenonius: Yeah, Flavia’s prototypes were also… they were weirder and more radical than I think some of us anticipated, you know too, they were really awkward to wear, and they were awkward looking, and you know, so there was that. I think there was that feeling like, “Ooh, this is not ready for prime time.” This is like, they felt so prototype-y and so kind of… they looked maybe vaguely “Mad Max” you know, where they, they looked like they’re you know, like fashioned out of broken things.

Peter Samis [laughing]: Yeah, yeah. So we ended up… David [Ross] used his muscle and authority and gravitas to work with Sandy Pentland and Glorianna Davenport, who were Flavia’s advisors at the Media Lab to say, “Okay, we have to salvage this. We’re doing this show. How are we going to do it?” And they put us together with Steelcase to design the Smart Tables and Steelcase initially came up with all these kind of “Star Wars” kind of, “Star Trek” you know, holodeck kind of control things you’re going to put in the middle, it would look Space Age. And then we gotta say, “No, no, no, no. Walk it back down.” We’re just going to do something that’s invisible, barely perceptible, but that murmurs quietly like a little, you know, with some voices over to the side, if people want to go and pick up a sound wand, they can hear it, and they can touch the screen.

Susie Wise: I forgot that that was Steelcase. That’s so interesting.

Peter Samis: Steelcase, yeah, yeah. That’s right.

Peter Samis: And Bruce Wyman actually was working for Near Life, and the MIT Media Lab got me to work with Near Life and Steelcase to manage that, Near Life helped manage that relationship, and that was how I first met Bruce Wyman. But to just wrap up on that — so, and then the smart glasses were replaced by — Sandy Pentland [at MIT] said, “Well, Compaq is coming out with their new iPAQ Pocket PC Gallery Explorer and it supports video. How about just putting some videos on the Gallery Explorer and giving a mobile experience that way?” We thought, “Okay, but what videos do we want people walking around the galleries with?” And we thought, “Well, the only ones that seem important enough would be videos of artists.” And so we culled all of our artist videos. We put three per gallery basically, in this little HTML menu, and we had to go back and forth between HTML and Windows Media Player on these iPAQ Gallery Explorers. And people could check them out for free when they got off the elevator and use those, or if they didn’t want to use those, they could just use the smart tables. And then, after the show, at the exits of the show, they could look at Making Sense of Modern Art at the kiosks that Tim described, or at the end of the show, after all of these different themes and smart tables and the iPAQ Gallery Explorer experience, if they used that, they could sit in the learning lounge in the back, where there was the Make Your Own Gallery activity, an animated activity where they could, having seen the ways that the curators had organized and thematized the show, they could come up with their own themes, and their own groupings and recombine things and make virtual galleries, and, and write a little bit about it.

Okay, I’ve said it all. I want to say. Go for it, guys.

Susie Wise: I really have to go, but haven’t we already, this is on the nitty gritty of the funding side, I thought we already had a relationship, we had started a relationship with Compaq, just as like a corporate donor.

Peter Samis: That’s right and then, but we didn’t know about the PDA until Sandy Pentland told us this is a fallback. And then we went out to our Compaq contact and they said, yeah, we could do that. We can give you 50 of those or whatever.

Susie Wise: Yeah.

Peter Samis: Twenty-five or fifty.

Susie Wise: Because that’s what I remember going, driving down to their, the Compaq offices, of course, they don’t exist anymore in Palo Alto.

Susie Wise: I didn’t know anything about Palo Alto, like I do now [after a Ph.D. at Stanford and being present at the founding of the d.school!].

Peter Samis: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Peter Samis: Well, what else do you want, should we cover? I mean…

Susie Wise: I’m curious if Paul has anything he wants to follow up on.

Peter Samis: Yeah, yeah. We’ve got a few more minutes before Susie’s gotta go, so ask a question, by all means.

[Marty]: Thanks for the time. I mean I’m absolutely fascinated by how you’re doing all of these moving parts behind the scenes, but at the same time, you have to get the curatorial buy-in, you know, in a way that makes it look like you’re not disrupting anything at all, right. This is going to be unobtrusive, a nice addition… How did you balance those two different worlds?

Peter Samis: I think we were acutely sensitive. I mean, both John and I had been curators, you know, and, and we have also been, and I knew what it was like to be sidelined and left to the peripheral spaces. So now that we were actually working together as part of a curatorial team, curating the show with Janet Bishop and Rachel Teagle, it was really about how can we create this shared space where everybody feels comfortable?

But we were still testing out what technology might bring to bear in the galleries. And we could do that because there was a Director and a Deputy Director, David and Lori, who were firmly supportive, and so the curators didn’t really have a choice, you know, about … they couldn’t just say “No, no, technology in the gallery!”

I’ll tell you, you asked what, what we couldn’t, what you couldn’t write about. Well, David Ross was fired. You know, the dot-bomb hit, Trustees’ stock portfolios tanked, David Ross was fired, and by the time Points of Departure ended, the entire economic picture had changed, we no longer had a museum director, and Madeleine Grynsztejn, who had arrived recently as the new Curator of Painting and Sculpture, said, “Okay, we’re going to do Points of Departure Two, without the technology.” And Neal Benezra, when he was hired a year or so later, you know, even though he apparently had sent Alan Newman out from the Art Institute of Chicago to see Points of Departure, and had been impressed by it, he never volunteered to put computers in the gallery with the art in all the years that followed.

Susie Wise: I also think we kind of can’t underestimate that because 010101 was happening, right… that launched literally at [on the date] 01.01.01, that launched in January. Points of Departure launched in March, and the 010101 show was in some ways meant to be like the grabber, like the audience grabber, to get the tech dot-com people, you know, like it was, it was the curatorial high point, not to diss on Points of Departure, but like, they kind of had that, and so it felt like, and this was a really interesting companion piece, right?

Peter Samis: That’s right.

Susie Wise: So I think, I think that played into it a lot too. Again, I was not in all the curatorial conversations. And then the other thing I hear, just in the recounting of the story, and I think is another one of the invisible things, in all work cultures, is relationships, right? It was the trusting relationship that John and Peter and Janet had, right? Janet and Peter had like entered the museum the same time…

Peter Samis: The same week. The same week in June 1988. We were both… We were the two curatorial assistants on all the exhibitions that the museum put on on Van Ness Avenue…

Susie Wise: And so, like, I think you can’t underestimate that, and then Rachel Teagle, who was like the newer figure in there, was kind of on loan to us, and she had played this really influential role in the Anderson Collection Show [in 2000], which had been a whole…

Peter Samis: And the CD-ROM.

Susie Wise: Right, and the CD-ROM, and so we had done those pieces together and that had been successful. And we were building off some of the learning that we had learned from that CD-ROM, too.

Peter Samis: Pachyderm was basically developed out of the prototype that was the Anderson CD-ROM [Art as Experiment, Art as Experience, an award-winning Flash CD-ROM and website published in 2000]. I mean, I mean those were the templates. The templates made their first appearance in the Anderson CD-ROM and the Sol LeWitt or Rauschenberg kiosks….

Susie Wise: And it wasn’t just that it was developed out of it, isn’t it like we had to push ourselves, we had to use it for that, right? I mean so that’s the other thing is like the ways that these technology projects and other projects, like the forcing function, right, intersected with exhibition exigencies and tech development time cycles. Like, it’s a really interesting like, thing, which I don’t, haven’t maintained how all of those happened in this context in my head, but I definitely have a visceral knowledge of like, how those were impacting each other. We also had to show like, you know, there were also some “put up or shut up” moments in all this too, right? Like…

Peter Samis: Go ahead.

Susie Wise: No, I just like, of that. You gotta— “You’ve been developing this technology, you better use it for that thing. I mean, these people are waiting on that thing so, go!”

Peter Samis: Yeah, so I’ll just say… to add to what Susie said in the past few minutes, and one of the things was the fifth, the fourth floor show, which was a cross-departmental 010101: Art in Technological Times. Points of Departure was implicitly The Museum in Technological times. What can technology bring to the way museums behave and interact with their public? Right. And then the other thing was something Susie said earlier, which was about, you know, creating those templates: because we knew that the time it took for developing… researching and developing all the content around the artworks that we put into Making Sense of Modern Art was going to be infinitely longer, especially over the years to come, than we could afford to hire programmers for. So we needed to have a tool set that we could populate and repopulate and populate yet again, year after year, exhibition after exhibition, and that became Pachyderm, right?

And it started, but, but it started… the first iterations were with the Anderson Collection CD-ROM and website, and it was done in Flash because you can both make a CD-ROM, you could make either a CD-ROM or a website or both out of it and Flash guaranteed a certain design standardization across all platforms, and supported video, even if in a slightly kludgy way.

[Jones:] Right.

Peter Samis: OK, are we good?

[Marty]: It’s a good example, right, because we’ve heard a lot in these interviews about the sort of shifting philosophies about the role of tech, and what do people think, the purpose of technology is in museums and how that changes over time. So I, I love Points of Departure, as a turning point for SFMOMA, right, and in terms of how technology was used in that museum, and it serves as a really great example about those shifting philosophies overall. Yeah.

Tim Svenonius: Could I say one more thing about that? There was a, you know, one of the things that characterized those days, in my mind, was that because even though the museum had a graphic design department, but they had no dealings in multimedia. We had, there were people, there were photographers for the collection, but they weren’t dealing in digital images, like, so essentially, we had oversight on matters of image production, color correction, batch processing, like, interface design, visual design, like all of these.

Peter Samis: Rights negotiation.

Tim Svenonius: Rights, oh my gosh, rights! So, so many things that later, once the, once our activities were much more visible and recognized by the rest of the institution, we started losing that autonomy, you know, that these little pieces of like a, of, you know, self-sufficiency were kind of like, were taken away from us. Where ultimately the graphic design department had to, you know, had to approve everything, and eventually, they had to, you know, they kind of like had to own it. And then, you know, like a lot of things gradually became much more, well, you know, institutionalized, and so there was a real… that, you know, in that regard, Points of Departure was like, there was a certain Golden Age aspect to it because we, you know, even though it was a colossal amount of work for our team, we also had the funding and the partnerships that allowed us to work with tons of people, like as per Susie’s story about her scroll.

Peter Samis: Right, and since that time, museums have been suffused with the digital in every department, in every aspect of their operation, so it’s normal in a way, that, as everybody else in generation after generation, things are born digital as opposed to when we were still making the transition from analog into digital, and we were the precursors, we were the vanguard of the museum in doing that. But now, there are all the different departments in there as… Ross Parry, you know, says, you know, digital is part of everything that the museum does now. Yeah, it’s a different time, and it would mean that much more collaboration to make this kind of effort happen. But I think, maybe museums are also more receptive to integration of technology, you know, in discreet ways in the galleries that help to enhance and improve visitor experience in ways that we were prototyping at the time in Points of Departure.

Susie Wise: Did we? And we did really use the word “prototyping” in Museum of the Future?

Peter Samis: That’s right. That was that was the subtitle of the video.

Susie Wise: Yeah, yeah.


[Marty]: I think the point you were just making about the the sort of the Golden Age aspect of these earlier days and how that has transitioned to — Ross Parry calls it, the post-digital museum […] You know, one of the things that we certainly see with social media is this transition from early days where nobody had any idea what was happening. Nobody had any idea what was doing what, right. A sense of freedom and growth! And then, in a very quick 10 years later, you’re spending all your time fighting with trolls 24/7. And proving that your retweet numbers are high enough, and your Facebook Likes are high enough, right? It’s become a metric-driven thing.

Peter Samis: Right, and it’s also scrutinized from the top level in a way it wasn’t before. We started out as a skunkworks. Points of Departure was kind of the apotheosis of the skunkworks as actually finally being integrated into the main stage of museum presentations and its public life, and now we’re at a place where that digital creative impulse has been in a sense, subordinated or subjugated by the top-level strategies of the museum, and so people no longer have the creative freedom to do the kinds of things we were free to do.

[Marty]: I think that’s a really good way of putting it, yeah.

Peter Samis: Oh, this is, this is my wife, Mary Curtis Ratcliff.

Mary Curtis Ratcliff: Okay, I just wanted to put my two cents worth in here.

[Marty]: Please do!

Mary Curtis Ratcliff: I’ve been going to museums my whole life and, as far as SFMOMA goes and all the shows I’ve seen over the last what, 40 years, 50 years, at museum, I think that Points of Departure was one of the most interesting shows that I’d ever seen, and partially because it had those smart tables and you could talk to, you could see the curators in soundbites like, you know talking about the work directly.

Peter Samis: Even humorously.

Mary Curtis Ratcliff: Yeah, even humorously.

Peter Samis: Real human beings.

Mary Curtis Ratcliff: I mean it really, really worked. I think the problem was it worked so well it freaked out a lot of people on staff.

Peter Samis: And the dot-bomb happened.

Mary Curtis Ratcliff: Oh, okay, that’s true, too, but still, I just really remember of all those hundreds of shows I’ve ever seen in museums around the world, that was one of the most interesting, so there! Bye!

Peter Samis: That was more than two cents. That was great. That was a dollar’s worth. Take that to the bank.

[Marty]: That theme of “it worked so well, it freaked people out,” right. This is another recurring theme that we see with technology too, because people are afraid of change.

Peter Samis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It changes the whole paradigm of what a museum exhibition [is], how it functions and, and how collaboratively it’s developed. And how much you listen to visitor input in a formative way, and not just in a summative way. And we did an enormous amount of actually of evaluation, while the exhibit was up, including our first experiments with tracking and timing. And we had tons of maps of different… and we had interns following people around and timing everything and, you know, and getting a sense of what the difference was between people who used the technology and didn’t use technology, and how much time they spent in the galleries. And then we would interview them afterwards and get qualitative interviews about, you know, what the impact of the use of the affordances was for them on their experience of the art, we… All that was part of Points of Departure, too.